Sunday, January 3, 2010

2010: Some starting ideas

Over the holidays, a college friend asked "What have you found about education, in a nutshell? And what do you think of NCLB? What changes would you make?" I answered this way:
1. Old-style schools have teachers who do the same thing for all students and (unsurprisingly) get quite different results for different kids. There's an alternative where teachers start out with a high standard, try some stuff, check who got it, try something different, and keep varying what they do to get more students to success. That model doesn't eliminate differences in kids' ability or their family backgrounds, but it makes them much smaller and raises overall achievement significantly.

2. Most teachers cannot reorganize to that model on their own. What works is collaborative teams that get together at least weekly to look at how students are going and figure out those next steps together. That's also a huge cultural shift for educators, because the default setting is that, no matter how big the building, each teacher is really working alone.

3. We (and other developed countries) have tried all kinds of indirect stuff to get teachers to make the shift. Testing, added money, consequences for testing, mandates, flexibility, offers of better jobs, threats of termination, the whole gamut. None of that works very well--including NCLB. Teachers go into their separate rooms and try things that don't work, and keep trying and keep trying and keep trying the same things that don't work. This does not make them different from most people. Watch people who open restaurants: nearly all of them do at least a couple of parts of the business so weirdly that they go bankrupt within a year or two.

4. The thing that is working is direct effort on teaching quality. Teacher preparation programs focused directly on practice teaching. Good model lessons and good mentors. Principals selected because they're obsessed with good teaching and then given plenty of help with how to strengthen other teachers. That's what the countries that are now beating the socks off of us are doing differently. Doing that doesn't eliminate differences in teachers' ability, but it does make the differences much smaller and overall teaching more effective, and student achievement notably higher.
To drop back into the vocabulary of education policy, 1 and 2 describe balanced assessment and professional learning communities, while 3 and 4 are, respectively, summaries of the weaker and stronger achievement strategies identified in the McKinsey report on top-performing schools.

Together, they're the core ideas we need to help American students can make substantial progress in the next few years, and Kentucky is positioned to lead that progress if we focus on those key issues through the New Year.

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Updates and data on Kentucky education!